Italian Title: Danza Macabra
French Title: Danse Macabre
US/ UK Title: Castle of Blood
Director: Anthony Dawson (Antonio Margheriti)
Uncredited Director: Sergio Corbucci
Writers: Jean Grimaud (Gianni Grimaldi?) & Gordon Wiles Jr. (Bruno Corbucci? Also possible uncredited work by Sergio Corbucci)
Original Music: Riz Ortalani (Credited as "Ritz Ortalani" in the Woolner Bros US release)
Vulsinia Film/ Ulysse Productions/ Giovanni Addessi Produzione Cinematografica
An Italy/ France co-production
Determined reporter Alan Foster (Georges Rivière) tracks Edgar Allan Poe (Silvano Tranquilli) to a quiet pub on one of his rare visits to London. Poe, missing the traditional goatee beard, is reciting one of his poems to an eager fan, Lord Blackwood (Umberto Raho) and is not too keen on the idea of an interview. Together they discuss the reality of the supernatural with varying degrees of scepticism, until Lord Blackwood suggested that Alan might want to put his money where his mouth is and try spending the night in his castle. Being an impoverished journalist (is there any other kind?) he is unable to make the £100 wager, but can at least offer a tenner. Poe is intrigued, and offers to come on the coach journey to the castle where they can have that interview Allan has been so desperate for. It is not exactly clear where this castle is, although the implication is that we are on the outskirts of London, given that the film's opening credits appear over images of the London skyline, including Tower Bridge and Big Ben.
|Selection of screen grabs from the Synapse DVD release|
When they arrive at the castle, we are not given a wide angle view, meaning that the size or architecture is never fully revealed. We instead only glimpse parts of the outside through the overgrowth or behind evil-looking tree branches which seem to reach down and attack Allan as he walks through the family cemetery to the entrance. What parts of the castle are revealed suggest a European, Mediterranean, design rather than the more usual British castle we might expect, but it is difficult to tell. One assumes that the entire façade was also part of the set rather than out on location, hence no wide shots, although a matte shot was surely not out of the question.
|Alan (Georges Rivière) meets Elisabeth (Barbara Steele) for the first time|
Once inside Allan locates a candlestick, lights all the candles in the hallway and starts exploring. Things start to get supernatural almost as soon as the door closes behind him. Ghostly, old-fashioned waltz music echoes down the hall, and Allan traces the source to a closed door, through which we also hear sounds of merriment. When he opens the door the music and the laughter stop, and the room is of course empty. He sits down and begins to play the same tune on the harpsichord, as though it was familiar to him. An outstretched hand touches his shoulder, and he turns, startled, to see the beautiful Elisabeth (Barbara Steele). Relieved that the castle is not uninhabited after all, he instantly falls in love with Elisabeth, the sister of Lord Blackwood, and follows her up to his room. He soon meets some of the castle's other inhabitants as well, including Julia (Margrete Robsahm), who I think is her sister-in-law, an unnamed gardener (probably Giovanni Cianfriglia), and the strange Doctor Carmus (Arturo Dominici), who is performing experiments involving blood and the prolongation of life after physical death through sheer will. He demonstrates this theory to Alan by chopping the head off a live snake, an early example of killing real animals on camera in Italian exploitation cinema which would reach controversial heights in the following decade.
Although initially unwilling to accept Elisabeth's assertion that she is in fact dead, Alan slowly comes to learn that he is trapped in this house, as on each Halloween (or more accurately at midnight going into All Souls Day) those who have died there are forced to relive their dying moments over and over again. Alan gets to witness the Elisabeth's husband being murdered by the jealous gardener, before he too is killed by Julia, who is then stabbed by Elisabeth. He also sees the grisly fates of other visitors, including a honeymooning couple and Doctor Camus himself, who is haunted by a breathing corpse in the castle's crypt. It is possible that this cycle was caused by the doctor's experiments, as they evidently need new blood every year to enable them to keep this tragic afterlife going, in some sort of quasi-scientific explanation which feels more like one of H.P. Lovecraft or Nathaniel Hawthorn's ghost stories than that of Poe.
Having spoiled the plot so far, I may as well go ahead and tell you that Alan does not make it out alive, despite his desperate efforts, being stabbed by the gate as he closes it behind him. Instead of winning the bet he joins the ever-growing family of spooks. Lord Blackwood arrives the next morning and duly collects his £10 from the dead body. One has to question Lord Blackwood here, who clearly knows what is going on in his castle, and the certainty of death for anyone who visits, yet he still willingly encourages people to visit. He even invited a couple to honeymoon there! What a guy.
According to Wikipedia, one of the only real sources I can find for any production information, this film exists because producer Giovanni Addessi wanted Sergio Corbucci to make another film to reuse his sets for the comedy The Monk of Monza (Il monaco di Monza, 1963, Sergio Corbucci, Italy: Giovanni Addessi Produzione Cinematografica, Globe Films International). Corbucci commissioned a script from that film's writers, his brother Bruno and Gianni Grimaldi, but scheduling conflicts meant that the film was given to his friend Antonio Margheriti instead. Historian Danny Shipka asserts that Margheriti shot Castle of Blood in 1962 in just fifteen days using a three camera system to save time. This makes this his first gothic horror film, coming before his better known The Long Hair of Death (I lunghi capelli della morte, 1964 (but shot in 1963) Italy: Cinegai S.p.A.) and Horror Castle, aka The Virgin of Nuremberg (La vergine di Norimberga, 1963, Italy: Atlantica Cinematografica Produzione Films). Apparently Corbucci did come in to shoot the scene where Elisabeth is stabbed by the gardener in a jealous rage in front of Alan because of the time constraints.
|Elisabeth is naturally horrified by all the murders|
Castle of Blood was cut down for its English-language release, judging by the 35mm US print included as a bonus feature on the Nightmare Castle (Amanti d'oltretomba, 1965, Mario Caiano, Cinematografica EmmeCi) blu ray from Severin. A longer cut incorporating additional material in French, with English subtitles, was put out by Synapse on DVD about fifteen years ago. The differences are significant:
Whilst watching it began to dawn on me that the hoary old narrative device "stay in a haunted house/ castle as a wager" most likely comes from the Grimm's tale 'The Story of a Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was,' first published in 1819's Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's and Household Tales -- Grimms' Fairy Tales), no. 4. I love that story; it borrows liberally from the already established Gothic tropes of The Castle of Otranto (1764, Horace Walpole) and The Monk: A Romance (1796, Matthew Gregory Lewis), and combines them with the childlike glee of the haunted house as fairground attraction. The story even comes with a ride through a spooky castle on a moving bed, which "rolled on as if six horses were harnessed to it, over thresholds and stairways, up and down."
Effectively the Brothers Grimm invented the ghost train, which in this context is particularly relevant because the other thing which Castle of Blood brings to mind is Disney's classic ride 'The Haunted Mansion,' which first opened in 1969, but had been in development for a number of years. Like 'The Haunted Mansion' this film features distorting portraits, eerie distant waltz music, disembodied laughter and enough cobwebs and candlesticks to make every spook and ghoul feel right at home. Our hapless hero Alan meets a sympathetic ghost, much like the "Ghost Host" of the ride, and he is forced to witness the last moments in the lives of the castle's previous occupants, which includes couples waltzing around the hall and the arrival of a bride and groom on honeymoon. 'The Haunted Mansion' builds its narrative around a tragic bride, and features an amazing ballroom scene with waltzing ghosts. The castle has long, foreboding corridors and a crypt through which Alan attempts to escape, leading to the cemetery. The way out from 'The Haunted Mansion' involved having to go through the crypt and into the cemetery, which features grasping tree branches and corpses swinging from above. All that is missing from Castle of Blood is a possessed crystal ball and singing ghouls atop the gravestones. Of course I am not saying that Disney ripped this film off, but the similarities seems more than just a coincidence. The ride was in development from 1961, but did not open to the public until 1969, giving the developers plenty of time to catch all the ghostly movies they could for ideas.
I have been obsessed with this ride since I was a child, when my grandparents had the soundtrack album and a super 8 film of the ride itself. I listened to it obsessively, pouring over the images in the accompanying gatefold album, so to recognise elements of it in this film was a real treat.
Like most of the entries on this blog so far, this was a first-time watch for me, and I absolutely adored it. Castle of Blood has leaped up my rankings to become one of my favourite films. It has everything one would want from a gothic horror tale, but with the added perversity of Italian exploitation which had only been hinted at in Roger Corman's Poe films, despite his reliance on psychoanalysis. Given fact that Margheriti was effectively a director for hire on this film, shooting at an astonishing rate, he could be forgiven for churning out something second-rate. Remarkably he demonstrated again that he could make something incredibly creative and atmospheric in such conditions, which would become something of a hallmark for him just a couple of years later when he made all four Gamma One films in a year. According to some sources Margheriti himself was somewhat dismissive of this film, calling it "boring." He seemed to have incorrectly attributed its perceived failings to the fact that it was black and white, and attempted to remedy the problem with a shot-by-shot remake in 1971: Web of the Spider (Nella stretta morsa del ragno, Italy/ France/ West Germany: Paris-Cannes Productions, Produzione DC7, Terra-Filmkunst), featuring Klaus Kinski as Poe. I've not seen this either, but by all accounts it was an experiment which did not work, leaving Castle of Blood as the superior gothic offering.
Over at The Bloody Pit Rod Barnett and John Hudson discussed both films at some length, which is highly recommended. Web of the Spider has just been released on blu ray in America.